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June 15, 2013 at 11:18 AM

Glimmer of optimism starting to peek through Mariners storm clouds

Safeco Joe no more: Joe Saunders earned his first road victory last night by tossing seven innings of one-run ball against Oakland. The Mariners have produced seven "quality starts" in a row -- the last six of them at least seven-innings in length. Photo Credit: AP

Safeco Joe no more: Joe Saunders earned his first road victory last night by tossing seven innings of one-run ball against Oakland. The Mariners have produced seven “quality starts” in a row — the last six of them at least seven-innings in length. Photo Credit: AP

Lost in all the tumult of the past few days following a Tom Wilhelmsen blown save was something that has quietly gone on with the Mariners’ starting rotation.

For the first time all season, that rotation has finally produced a complete turn of so-called “quality starts” — meaning at least six innings pitched, three runs or fewer allowed in an outing.

In fact, the Mariners have now had seven consecutive quality starts after last night’s 3-2 win credited to Joe Saunders. More importantly, the last six quality starts in a row have been of the seven-inning-or-greater variety.

One of the reasons this news had been overshadowed was that Wilhelmsen’s blown save against the Astros nullified eight scoreless innings by Jeremy Bonderman. Fans don’t tend to notice quality starts when the team loses the game anyway.

On that note, some dismal offensive performances also caused the Mariners to lose games, such as when Felix Hernandez tossed seven innings of one-run ball against the New York Yankees last Sunday, only to lose 2-1. Hernandez takes the mound later this afternoon. Hisashi Iwakuma goes tomorrow. There is a good chance for the quality start roll to continue.

And that is huge in the here and now if the Mariners want to stop their slide and actually turn this season around before it’s too late.

You can’t halt a long-term slide like this one without multiple wins in a row. The Mariners have not had a winning streak in excess of three games all season and — not surprisingly — have yet to sweep a team. It’s tough to do that when there’s always one or two starters in your five-man rotation giving you a five-and-dive, or a four-and-dive, or even a three-and-dive.

That latter part hadn’t happened to the Mariners since Aaron Harang gave up six runs over 2 1/3 innings in a series-opening loss to the Yankees a week ago Thursday. The next night, Bonderman went six innings and yielded just one earned run to get this streak of quality starts going.

Harang later contributed with a complete game shutout of the Astros.

Get by those two spots in the rotation, the Mariners can start dreaming about streaks. And they need one right about now to break away from this little back-and-forth two-step that sees them constantly hovering between eight and 10 games under .500. Keep that up and there will be temptation to start trading away parts in July and then you pretty much forget about this season and aim for next year.

If the Mariners want to avoid that, they have to start wiping away chunks of that gap and get as close to .500 as they can before the break.

It is possible to do that the way the rotation is pitching right now. If not for Wilhelmsen, this team would be on a season-high four-game win streak right now. But the time for making such excuses is now long past. By taking this long to get the rotation in sync, the Mariners have thrown away the margin for error they’d usually have to withstand a botched ninth inning by a closer. Or injuries to key offensive personnel.

Right now, there is zero margin for error for this team. What the Mariners have to do is buy some time for Justin Smoak to come back by next week, for Franklin Gutierrez to get off the DL in another week or two and for Dustin Ackley to be called up to play some outfield as well and take the heat off Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay.

The Mariners can do that by finishing this trip 4-2 in their next six games. Three of those games will be started by Hernandez and Iwakuma, so this is not out of the question. When your starters are dealing, wins will normally pile up. Go 5-2 overall on this trip, the Mariners will return to Safeco Field six games under .500 and see the schedule ease up considerably before the All-Star Break.

Go just 4-3 on this trip — meaning, split the next six games — and you’re back to eight games under .500. Back to the ole’ two-step.

The Mariners have made strides in the rotation — and not just from two guys and not only against the Astros. Now, it’s time for the team as a whole to capitalize on that and take a big step forward. These next two days will be telling.

0 Comments | More in starters | Topics: joe saunders; felix hernandez; hisashi iwakuma; jeremy bonderman

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